The Tomb of the Unknown Teenager; or, An Open Letter

Dear Teenager,

Just a little over a year ago, I was one of you. I walked the hallways of my giant public high school in southern California, a great sea of mostly-anonymity where if you were singled out, it was only to be taunted and never to be praised. Where it seemed as if you would never be the kid selected to receive the book prize or to captain the team, where it was easier to eat lunch with your teachers than in the morass of your peers, where a difference that had started out for you as a source of pride quickly became in the hands of your fellow students a source of shame. I relive in my mind the scenes of high school in the 21st century, a weird environment in which it is safe to go to the meetings of a Gay-Straight Alliance, but not to walk into the girls’ bathroom while wearing short hair and baggy jeans; in which the health teacher wanted, deep down, to teach comprehensive sex ed, but was too nervous; in which every year in homeroom they passed out the numbers of a suicide hotline, and yet when a girl did, after all, kill herself, they nervously swept the story of suicide under the rug.

Not all 2,400 students enrolled in my high school in a given year made it out intact. Some died, whether by their own hands or through accident or illness. Some were forced by the poisonous environment of that place to compromise their identities, their senses of self, their self-honesty and their self-knowledge. Many became depressed, or turned to drugs and drink as coping mechanisms. While no doubt if you went to high school in the United States you knew at least one person who was subject to all these fates, I can at least attest to the validity of the last category: high school was a struggle for me, a struggle with self-loathing and depression and the curse of being different. And in saying that I made it out alive and intact, and managed to stay functional enough throughout the experience to do the tests and the applications and keep my grades up and go on to a better place a continent away, I don’t congratulate myself. The only thing there is is that I was lucky, and I thank the higher power I don’t believe in every day that I had the good fortune to have support from my family and an unabiding desire to achieve that helped me to get far enough to realize that better worlds do exist outside of that one.

But the luck is not in having better worlds, it’s just in realizing that they exist, and hanging on long enough to get to them. And the great thing about that being where the luck comes in is that it can be managed and mitigated. Many people have responded to the fact that six reports of the suicides of LGBT teenagers surfaced in the media in the month of September by pointing out that life does get better, that it will get better, and that if we can just hang on long enough, we can all reach a point in our lives when that’s true. And that, of course, is what I want to do by telling you my story about how it was bad for me, but it got better.

Because, you see, when I came across the country to New Jersey, it wasn’t just that I was for reasons of social inequality of which I’m not proud coming across the country to an elite, selective, private university; it was that I was breaking out of the poisonous insularity of a world obsessed with labels, social statuses, and the destructive deployment of stereotypes, where to be visible and to be invisible are curses of equal measure. I live away from my family (though I have a good relationship with them, and talk to them frequently), and so I’ve had the opportunity to build a new family of my own out of the peers and mentors who populate my new life, whom I work and study and eat meals and socialize with. I live in a world big enough to avoid the people I don’t like; I make my own decisions; if I would like to be invisible, I can hide in my room, and if I would like to be visible, I can sit in a common space or call a friend. On that note, I have friends. I didn’t, really, all those years ago. I have felt safer and more in control and happier in college than I ever have. Read the archives of this blog: they’ll tell you so.

This is not to say that college, if you have the opportunity to go away to college, is necessarily where it gets better. Tyler Clementi killed himself last week, and he was a college freshman, and it was because his roommate and his neighbor committed a disgusting act of invasion of privacy and played upon all the worst social instigators of shame and depression. But if your first few weeks of college, when you’re thrust into an unfamiliar environment with people whom you didn’t choose, is not when it gets better, then hang on: it will be in your second semester, your second or third or fourth years, your first time living in a new city by yourself, or maybe after you graduate, when you have more freedom and autonomy. Maybe it gets better when you have your first sexual experience or your first relationship. Maybe it gets better when you spend some time in a foreign country. Maybe it gets better when, after some time away, you move back home and reconnect with your family. Maybe it’s when you get help for any problems you might have. Maybe it’s whenever you finally have the freedom not to have to be someone you’re not. But whenever it is, however it is: you’ll be able to do it. I promise.

Today I live in a college dorm, in my own room, my own space. Today when people come over to my room, I offer them tea and coffee and Baroque music plays in the background on Pandora. Today when people come over I watch their eyes slide over my walls, covered in postcards of male and female nudes, in gay-activist iconography, and in pictures of my family; or over the titles on my bookshelves, from Alcott and Auden to Wilde and Woolf; I hear them laugh at the Dr. Seuss magnets on my fridge and the Ernie and Bert stuffed animals on my windowsill. Sometimes, they’re too polite to publicly deride my taste in granny-square crocheted pillows and tastefully tacky tchotchkes. And I’m proud, oh so proud, to have people over because this room and the things I put in it are a space I would not have had and things I would not have dared acquire or publicly display when I was thick in the throes of teenagerhood. The public declarations of queerness, of geekiness, and of pretension which damned me to pariahdom just a couple years ago are now a sense of self in which I take refuge. And my life is so much better for it.

Someday—maybe not now, but someday—you’ll have a room of your own, which you can decorate how you choose. You’ll be able to have people over, and it will be so yours that they won’t dare to say anything to deride your taste, to attack you for putting your identity up on your walls. And well, if they do, you’ll be so you that nothing they can say will make a difference—because after all, you can shut the door behind them and refuse them entry. This is, of course, a metaphor as well as literal reality; when it gets better, your mind and your choices will be your own, and no one will be able to force you into feeling pain or fear or shame.

It isn’t easy to get to this point. It requires a lot of resolve, a lot of courage, and maybe a friend or a family member or a therapist who can help you through it. Not all teenagers are lucky enough to start out with these things. But it is not as difficult as it might once have been to find someone a continent away who feels the way you’re feeling, and can listen to you feel it. It is no longer necessary to be and to feel completely alone. And there are people out there who can tell you—as I am telling you now—that no matter how awful it seems right now, things will get better. And you’ll find beauty, and happiness, and love, and pride. And until you do, we’ll all, all of us out here on the internet, be here to help you to find your strength.

It gets better. I promise.


6 thoughts on “The Tomb of the Unknown Teenager; or, An Open Letter

  1. Great post, Emily. I think perhaps my favorite part is: “But the luck is not in having better worlds, it’s just in realizing that they exist, and hanging on long enough to get to them.”

    Thank god, for you! You are such a do-gooder! I’m so grateful for people like you that are working so hard to make the world a better place.

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